Astrophoto: Straining Upwards to Hear the Cosmos

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Sept. 14 2013 8:00 AM

Straining Upwards to Hear the Cosmos

Photo by Phil Hart, used by permission. Click to engugliuccenate.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

About 400 kilometers (250 miles) west of Sydney, Australia, stands the Parkes radio telescope. A single dish mounted on a wonderfully anachronistic brick tower, “The Dish”, as Aussies lovingly call it, is a monumental 64 meters (210 feet) across. It sits, quite literally, in the middle of a sheep paddock, again attesting to the oddly dichotomous nature of modern and traditional.

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The telescope runs 24 hours a day, every day, and has been in operation now for over a half century. It was vital to the Apollo missions (though its role was not quite what was shown in the fun movie “The Dish”; operations at the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station were combined with those of Parkes in the movie) and still does important scientific work.

Astrophotographer Phil Hart visited Parkes recently for a conference, and while the weather was not the best, it cooperated long enough for him to take that photo above, what may be the best picture of the telescope I have ever seen.

It's actually a mosaic of four shots, and it shows the telescope as its kind is meant to be: tilted upwards, watching the skies, and recording what it finds. The Milky Way serves as both a backdrop for the dish as well as target; the telescope commonly observes astronomical phenomena in our galaxy, including the radio flashes from tiny, ultradense pulsars, and the faint radio emission from far-flung clouds of gas.

I visited Parkes when I was first in Australia back in 2004, and had a lovely time. I gave a talk there (about the Moon “hoax”, which they loved, given their role in Apollo; I met and had a fantastic conversation with two men who worked on Apollo at the time), and was given a tour of the facilities. I was struck by the sense of anachronism, the modern tech mixed with older machinery, the very fact of a gigantic eye on the sky sitting in a remote farming community.

It was wonderful.

Hart’s photo brought all that back to me, and makes me long to visit there once again. I couldn’t last month when I was in Sydney, but perhaps if there’s a next trip south for me, I’ll carve out the needed time to see this old beauty once again.

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